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Reflections from Vermont

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

This article was first published in the December 1989 issue of Monthly Review (Volume 41, Issue 07). Now, after two failed Democratic Party presidential nomination bids in 2016 and 2020, seemed an appropriate time to make Bernie Sanders’ trenchant critique of U.S. party politics available to readers.

The following is an edited version of remarks made by Bernard Sanders at a meeting sponsored by the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) at New York City on June 22, 1989.

I’m here to give you some good news. I know that many of you are in desperate need of good political news, so let me start off by giving you some reasons as to why you might want to be somewhat more optimistic politically than you might otherwise be.

I’m from Vermont, and in Vermont the political world seems a little bit different than most other places in the country. I’m here tonight not to provide you with grandiose theory but to tell you about our experience so you can learn something that’s practical, what we have done, and maybe we can talk about how we can do it around the rest of the country.

Let me begin by giving you the end of the story, and then we’ll get back to the beginning. The end of the story is that today, in Vermont, a state whose residents are primarily low- and moderate-income people, overwhelmingly white, largely working-class—including farmers being driven off their land—the largest city in the state, Burlington, has had an independent, progressive government for the last nine years. I was elected mayor on four occasions and served from 1981 to 1988. My successor, Peter Clavelle, who had been a member of my administration for seven years, won a smashing victory in March against a candidate who had the combined support of the Democratic and Republican parties. He received 54 percent of the vote, she received 43 percent, and a Green candidate received 3 percent.

Further, the Progressive Coalition has had strong representation on our Board of Alderpersons for the last seven years. Right now there are six progressives, four Republicans, and three Democrats on the Board. Unfortunately, while we have had a plurality on the Board, and mayoral veto power for the last seven years, we have never yet had a majority.

In some parts of the country there still exists a debate, I suppose, as to whether or not there are real ideological differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. In Burlington, very few people engage in that debate anymore because the political reality of the city, demonstrated on an almost daily basis, shows that there is no serious difference between those two parties. When, in two straight mayoral elections the Democratic and Republican parties combine around one candidate; when, on almost every important issue facing the city, the Democratic and Republican members of the Board combine to defeat or water down progressive initiatives; when, with one exception in nine years, every Democrat and Republican on the Board combines to elect their own Aldermanic President; when, every year, the two parties combine their aldermanic strength against the progressive plurality to select city commissioners; when all this occurs, one begins to get the feeling that there is not much of a difference between these two parties.

In fact, increasingly in Burlington, the political factions are differentiated by two labels—the Progressive Coalition and the Conservative Coalition (Democrats and Republicans). In any case, the good news from Vermont is that a progressive political movement has had power in Burlington for nine years, taking on and substantially defeating the local Democratic and Republican parties.

Further, in Vermont, independent politics has gone beyond the city of Burlington. In November 1988 I ran for the United States House of Representatives which, in Vermont, is a statewide position as we have only one Congressperson. The Republican candidate, a moderate, won with 41 percent of the vote; I came in second with 38 percent and a liberal Democrat who was the Democratic Leader in the State House of Representatives came in third with 19 percent.

In that election I carried almost every working-class area of the state, sometimes getting more votes than the other two candidates combined. We not only won areas that had traditionally been Democratic but we also won in “conservative” (often farming) Republican areas. In fact, I received more votes than either of my opponents in the northern ten counties of the state. The election was lost in the southern three counties where I and the Burlington record were not well known, where we were weak organizationally and people tended to remain within the two-party system.

Now people sometimes think that there is something very special about Burlington. As I just mentioned to one of the reporters over there, we’re not Madison, Wisconsin. We don’t have a particularly large or active student population. We’re not Berkeley, California, with a very politically conscious electorate. In Burlington the Progressive Coalition does best among working-class and poor people. There are six wards in the city. In the two working-class and low-income wards the Progressive Coalition has all four aldermanic seats and, in the elections that I’ve been in, I’ve always received over 60 percent of the vote there, often against two or more candidates.

So the first point that I want to make is do not believe what people often tell you when they say that the United States is a two-party system and that progressive politics outside of the Democratic Party is an exercise in futility. Speak to the Democrats in Burlington and statewide and see what they think about that “futility.”

Now, we can argue ’til the cows come home as to whether Vermont is unusual, or whether the experience of Burlington and Vermont can be a useful model for political efforts in other cities and states and, perhaps, for the country. My own view is that while Vermont clearly does have some unique characteristics, there is nothing that we have done in our state that cannot be accomplished elsewhere in the United States. It is true that Vermont is a much smaller state than most and that you have a much greater opportunity to talk to people directly. It is also true that because of the smallness of the state, the media coverage will probably be more extensive than in a more populated area. So there are some real advantages. But in terms of who the people are, especially the working people and poor people, they are no different than anyone else. In my view, the success of the progressive movement in Vermont is based on a simple concept. The contempt for the Democratic and Republican parties, and status-quo politics, is overwhelming. Almost no one feels positive about these parties. In Vermont we have been able to present the people with a progressive alternative, primarily based on a class analysis, and the people have supported us. That’s Number One.

The second point I want to make has to do with the word “socialism.” As we all know, during the recent presidential campaign the candidate of the Democratic Party had a very difficult time confessing that, deep down, he really was a liberal. In Vermont everybody knows that I am a socialist and that many people in our movement, not all, are socialists. And as often as not—and this is an interesting point that is the honest-to-God truth—what people will say is, “I don’t really know what socialism is but if you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, you’re OK with me.” That’s true. And I think there has been too much of a reluctance on the part of progressives and radicals to use the word “socialism.”

It seems obvious to me that there is no way that we can deal with the enormous economic, social, and environmental problems facing this country without making radical changes in the economic system, and we’ve got to be honest about that. I believe that democratic socialism is the appropriate framework for making those changes, and we should be upfront about our beliefs.

Yes, it is true that a result of the tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media, there are many people who do not know the difference between “socialism” and “communism.” Yes, on more than one occasion I have been told to “go back to Russia.” But, if we maintain a strong position on civil liberties, express our continued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-party state, I am confident that the vast majority of the people will understand that there is nothing incompatible between socialism and democracy. That has been the case in Vermont and I believe, with proper effort, that it can be the case nationally. Further, given the fact that in Burlington we have almost doubled voter turnout and have significantly increased citizen participation, it is very hard for our opponents to argue that we are not “democratic.”

Now, let me touch upon some of the issues, some of what’s going on in the country today that, because of corporate control over the media, doesn’t get a whole lot of coverage. Let’s start off with the whole question of the quality of democracy in the United States today.

We all went to elementary school, and we took civics and we all learned that we are a democratic society, that it is the people who control the government. That’s, at least, what we were told in school. As all of you know, however, half of the American people made a very profound statement in the 1988 election. Given a choice between Bush and Dukakis they said, “Thank you, but no thank you.” They didn’t vote. Everybody here is outraged that in South Africa black people don’t have the right to vote. We should be equally outraged that in this country the overwhelmingly majority of poor people no longer vote. They no longer see any reason for casting a ballot for a Bush or a Dukakis, and that’s a fact. Half the American people don’t vote. The rich vote, the upper-middle class votes, many middle-class people vote. The poor people don’t vote. I have campaigned in low-income housing districts, gone and knocked on one door after the other, and people say: “I don’t vote. I don’t believe in it. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me.” So under our “democratic” system a near majority of people no longer see the relevance of elections as a mechanism to improve their lives. They’re told by the League of Women Voters to vote, they’re told by the schools to vote, they’re told by hundreds of commercials that they should come out and vote, and yet half the people resist it. They don’t want to participate in a process which is increasingly irrelevant to their lives. Elections take place. Somebody wins. Somebody loses. But the lives of the people remain unchanged.

Another extremely important development that all of you are familiar with: In the last election, 99 percent of incumbent congresspersons were re-elected; that’s higher than the Politburo in the Soviet Union. That means that the system of representative democracy in our country has broken down and we’ve created a government which cannot be recalled by the people. It’s a government which is now self-perpetuating and immune from citizen pressure; something like a House of Lords. Essentially, as a result of an incumbent’s ability to raise corporate money, the use of franking privileges, name recognition, etc., we have a government in Washington which cannot be removed by the people. Ninety-nine percent of these guys won—and some of them were under indictment. So the question is: What does “democracy” mean when you have the right to vote, but when elections can’t change the government. It sounds a little bit like Guatemala or El Salvador. You can vote—but it doesn’t mean much. Further, for years political observers in this country made fun of, correctly, the elections in the Communist-block countries where candidates would win with 99 percent of the vote. Somebody should check elections in the United States today and find out how many congresspersons, state representatives, mayors, and city councilors now win with 99 percent of the vote, or with very limited opposition.

Now I’d like to touch briefly on three or four issues on which I think we as progressives have got to concentrate. Sure as hell the Democrats and Republicans won’t talk about them.

In terms of the distribution of wealth in this country one percent of the population now owns over half of the wealth in the United States (excluding private home ownership). The richest 10 percent now own over 80 percent of the wealth. You pick up a paper every day and what you see is another huge corporation buying out a smaller corporation, a trend which is especially dangerous in terms of the media. We are living in a country which is being increasingly controlled by a very small number of very powerful and super-rich individuals. Ordinary people understand that. They want to see a movement which speaks up against that and which has proposals to change it. In terms of the distribution of income, it’s the same old story. The people on top are making a fortune. The people down below are sleeping out on the streets.

In terms of the standard of living of the American people, the average worker has seen a significant decline in his/her standard of living. A 30-year-old worker today, you know that this is absolutely incredible, is earning 25 percent less in real dollars than that worker earned 20 years ago. It’s no secret. We see the factories, the decent paying union jobs being transported to the Third World where hungry workers are being paid $5 a day. We are seeing our standard of living radically decline. The reason that unemployment is not a major problem today is that many families now need two bread winners in order to pay the bills, so the husband and wife are now both working at low wage jobs.

Housing: you understand what’s going on. You see it all around you. Right in this neighborhood. It’s not just that up to three million people are now sleeping out on the streets. That’s just part of the story. Poor people are now paying half of their income for housing. In fact, now is the first time since the Great Depression that the percentage of Americans who are homeowners has been declining. A basic necessity of life. Housing. A disaster.

The health-care situation is even worse. We are one of two nations in the industrialized world that does not, in one form or another, have a national health-care system that guarantees health care to all its citizens. I live in Burlington, Vermont. Fifty miles north of us is Canada which has a totally different system. They did a poll recently. I don’t know how many of you saw it. They asked people in Canada, in England, and in the United States how they felt about their respective health-care systems. The results were staggering. In this country 90 percent of the people felt that the system here is seriously flawed and needs change; far higher than in Canada or in England.

Who is speaking out in this country for a national health-care system which says that health care is a right of the people and should not be run as a business in which some people make huge sums of money? People want to hear that. In Burlington we put the issue on the ballot. We asked the people if they wanted the Congress to move forward in establishing a national health-care system. We won 2-1, and in the working-class wards 4-1. People want to see a national health-care system, and they want to see a movement in this country which is determined to take on the medical establishment and create one.

In terms of education, in our country today, 30 percent of the kids are dropping out of high school. In the ghettos 50 percent of the kids are dropping out of high school. That’s the future of the country. And many of the kids who graduate from high school really don’t know very much. Some of them are functionally illiterate. In terms of the entire nation, no one is quite sure how many functionally illiterate people there are here. The estimates that I’ve read vary between 20 and 60 million people. An enormous number of Americans are unable to read the front page of a newspaper.

The environment: you’re all familiar with that, and there is not enough time now to go into that whole issue at length. Essentially, how do we create an economic system which provides a decent standard of living for the people and which is not based on production methods that destroy our planet? There is, perhaps, no issue more important than that. And I could go on and on. The military budget, the never-ending political scandals, the incredible bailout of the banks, the illegal and immoral war against Nicaragua while we spend $3 billion on the neo-Nazi government of El Salvador. It never stops.

When the rich are getting richer while the poor and middle class are getting poorer; when the standard of living of the average worker is in rapid decline; when people can’t afford health care, can’t afford housing, can’t afford to send their kids to college, and the environment is being destroyed for quick profits, when you put it all together, what do you have? You’ve got a disaster. And the people understand that. They know what’s going on, and they want a movement which will speak to these issues, the issues that are wrenching out the guts of this country, but which the Democrats and Republicans and the corporate media will never honestly deal with.

Now, who do we hold responsible for these problems? I know that’s a strange question, very rarely asked, but let’s pursue it. Well, what’s in vogue now, you see, is: “Gee, that Ronald Reagan was a terrible president, what a reactionary guy.” Well, he was. But let me give you some interesting news that most of you already know. Throughout the eight years of the Reagan presidency another political party, it’s called the Democratic Party, controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, controlled every important committee in the House of Representatives. For six out of the eight years of the Reagan presidency the Democratic Party controlled the U.S. Senate. The “Reagan Revolution” was not brought about by Reagan and the Republicans. It was brought about by Reagan with the active support of the Democratic Party. It was a truly bipartisan effort. Democrats and Republicans working together—protecting the interests of the rich and the powerful.

Now what I think is crying out in this country is the need for a new political movement which talks truth and common sense to the ordinary people. I often speak on campuses and other places around the country, and the disgust with the two-party system is incredible. Very, very few people have faith or belief in either of those parties. People will vote for one of their candidates because they’ll say that this guy is better than that guy, but it’s very much a question of the “lesser of two evils.” The people know that the present political system is failing. They want an alternative.

Now I know that there are people, good and honorable people, people who are friends of mine, who believe that the Democratic Party can be turned around. I don’t. I believe that what we have got to do right now is create a progressive, independent political movement which brings together all of the single-issue groups who are currently banging their heads against the wall. The unions, the minority groups, the women’s organizations, the environmentalists, the senior citizens, the youth, the peace activists—and all the people who know that we need fundamental change in this country. More than anything, I believe that we’ve got to bring those people together and articulate the real reality of America—not the TV reality. We’ve got to make people understand that the enormous problems that they are facing are not primarily personal problems, but social problems. Further, we’ve got to articulate a democratic vision which is based on social justice, peace, and respect for the environment.

Now the argument, and I’m sure that we’ll discuss this later on because some of you will disagree with me, the argument for working within the Democratic party is that, presumably, that’s where the people are. You’ve got to go where the people are. All I can tell you is two things. In Burlington, in Vermont, the people have shown that they are not dumb. They can read and they can think and they are quite capable of voting for someone who is not a Democrat or a Republican. They discovered that their fingers didn’t fall off when they pulled the lever for someone outside of the two-party system. People can do that. Not only in Vermont but all over the country. It is absurd to believe that, for some mysterious reason, people will only vote for a Democrat or a Republican, and that we will always have to support the two-party system. Secondly, and equally important, if we are interested in getting people excited about politics and the possibility of real social change, how can you do that within the Democratic Party? I think that it’s impossible to get people excited, to get people motivated, when you say to them, “Come on into the party of Jim Wright, Lloyd Bentsen, and worse. We’re really going to change things around and here’s my good friend Lloyd Bentsen.” You can’t do it.

I’m not here to tell you that I have a magic solution to the problem and that everybody else is a jerk. I have no easy solutions. Nobody does. There are enormous obstacles that will have to be overcome if we are going to build a successful third party. But I do believe this: Winning elections tomorrow is important, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing. In a country which has such a low level of political consciousness; in a country where the level of political “debate” is so pathetically low, it is absolutely imperative that the progressive movement raise the issues and the analyses which will educate the people of our nation to begin to understand what the hell is going on. And I honestly don’t believe that that can take place within the Democratic Party.

In Canada, as many of you know, there are three major parties including the New Democratic Party. Now I have no great illusions about Canada or, for that matter, about the NDP. However, what seems pretty clear, is that the presence of the NDP in Canadian politics, and their raising of working-class issues, takes the whole political discussion in Canada far to the left of what goes on in our country. In Canada today the Conservative Prime Minister is, in terms of ideology, the equivalent of a moderate Democrat in the United States. And the Liberal Party and the NDP are to the left of that. The same thing is true in Scandinavia and many other European countries. To my mind, it is absolutely imperative that we build an independent, democratic socialist left which has the guts to raise the issues that all of us know to be true, but which are very rarely even discussed within establishment politics. Our major task is to change the entire nature of political discussion in the country. In my view that’s just not going to happen within the Democratic Party. It seems to me that if you add up all of the people who are getting a raw deal from the system today you’re talking about a majority of the population. That’s our potential constituency, and I think we’ve got to form a political movement which brings these people in.

So I guess that the news that I’m here to tell you is that in Vermont we’re doing pretty well. Not as well as I’d like—we have an enormous amount of work in front of us—but pretty well. We have laid the foundation now for a three-party state—and I believe that most of the working people, poor people, young people, environmentalists, and peace activists will be with us. Finally, I want to repeat my view that nothing that we’ve done in Vermont cannot be done elsewhere in the country.

Thank you.

1989, Volume 41, Issue 07 (December 1989)
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